A big part of the magic of high school policy debate is that one truly never knows what is going to happen. While most contest rounds follow a similar script, every now and then a debate challenges its participants—both contestants and critics—to think—really think—about some of the fundamental theoretical underpinnings of our game. Sometimes these debates occur between the best of the best in high school or college debate. And sometimes they occur in debates between rising sophomores at a summer debate institute in Ann Arbor. This is the story of one of these latter debates. It is dedicated to Alex Bahls of Wayzata High School, a debater that has challenged me to think about debate theory more thoroughly and creatively during the last three weeks than perhaps any student I’ve ever worked with. This one’s for you, Bahls.
Why take the time to dive into the details of a confounding summer institute practice round? I offer two possible defenses—one high-brow and one perhaps more honest.
First, one of the primary motivations for the creation of The 3NR was to provide a forum for the discussion and development of debate theory. While many of the major theoretical advancements of the past were led at least in part by published academic scholarship, most of today’s innovations in debate theory are a product of in-round contest debating and the back-and-forth between debaters and judges. The existence of a forum like The 3NR (and, to be fair, Cross-X.com and e-Debate) makes it possible for this theory-generation process to be extended to include more voices and to be conducted in a way that is not constrained by the time limits and competitive pressures of a contest round.
Second, debate geekery is fun. If you do not consider yourself a debate geek, read no further.
With that caveat in place, let’s begin with a rundown of the events that took place.
The affirmative advocated that the United States federal government expand the Lifeline and Link-up programs to include broadband. The negative read eight off-case positions in the 1NC:
- T-Social Services must involve Social Workers
- T-For is Exclusive – Lifeline and Link-up are means-tested at 135% of the federal poverty line
- Agent Specification
- Coercion DA
- Politics DA
- Charitable Tax Credits CP
- Supreme Court CP
- 50-State Mirror CP
In the cross-examination of the 1NC, the affirmative did not ask the disposition of the counterplans. After cross-ex concluded, the affirmative took a few minutes of preparation time and then gave the 2AC order:
- T-Social Services
- Conditionality Bad
Realizing that they had not asked about the disposition of the counterplans, the affirmative started prep time again and posed that question to the negative. The negative, after briefly considering their options, replied that all three counterplans were dispositional (defined in the most common way — the negative may revert to the status quo unless the counterplan is “straight-turned”).
Undaunted, the 2AC answered the Topicality and A-Spec arguments and then read a relatively lengthy “dispositionality bad” argument (the scare quotes indicate that it was a “conditionality bad” argument re-labeled).
The 2NC kicked out of the States CP, extended the Charitable Tax Credit CP—and argued that it solved better (by extending 1NC evidence tagged as such), and spent the rest of the speech defending dispositionality.
The 1NR extended the Supreme Court CP and read a piece of evidence tagged as “The courts can solve the digital divide by establishing a First amendement right to broadband access – anti-monopoly and right to reply case law establish sufficient precedent.” This piece of evidence was followed up with the statement that “the counterplan solves better than the plan — Court action is best.” The 1NR then extended agent specification.
The 1AR answered A-Spec and extended dispositionality bad—they did not address either the Charitable Tax Credit CP or the Supreme Court CP.
The 2NR kicked out of the Charitable Tax Credit CP, answered dispositionality bad, extended A-Spec, and extended the Supreme Court CP “extend that the Courts solve better – we’re going to go for the Courts CP – they have no defense – the Courts solve better and avoid … yeah, well the Courts solve better. Our Colby 1 evidence says that the Court can solve the digital divide by establishing a First Amendment right to broadband access. Perms check – don’t let them bring up new arguments in the 2AR because that would kill clash.”
The 2AR answered A-Spec, extended dispositionality bad, and made two additional arguments: first, that kicking out of the Charitable Tax Credit CP was illegitimate because the affirmative did not make a permutation or a theoretical objection other than “dispositionality bad” (which were the conditions under which a counterplan could be kicked… essentially, the argument was that a “drop” constitutes a “straight turn”), and second, that there is no net-benefit to the counterplan and presumption should lie with the affirmative.
I resolved that the negative won that dispositionality was good. I resolved that the affirmative need not specify their agent. As a result, I was required to assess whether the plan or the counterplan was preferable.
The text of the counterplan was “The Supreme Court should extend Lifeline and Link-up to include broadband.”
Both the 1NR and the 2NR asserted that the CP solved better than the plan because the Supreme Court’s creation of a First Amendment right to broadband internet access was good.
The affirmative’s interpretation of their plan’s agent was “the whole USFG” — which includes the Supreme Court. However, they did not make the argument that the plan includes the counterplan.
Therefore, there were two problems with the counterplan that were not discussed by the affirmative:
The purported reason that the counterplan solved better the plan was clearly false — the counterplan text did not have the Supreme Court create a First Amendment right to broadband internet access.
The plan included the counterplan—action by “the whole USFG” includes action by the Supreme Court.
This then results in several difficult-to-resolve questions:
In the absence of affirmative arguments, should the judge accept or reject the negative’s characterization of their counterplan and its ability to solve the case?
In the absence of affirmative arguments, should the judge accept or reject the negative’s unspoken assumption that the counterplan was competitive with the plan?
If the affirmative had made these arguments—but not until the 2AR—should the judge evaluate them?
I concluded that the answer to questions one and two is that the judge should accept the negative’s characterization. I concluded that the answer to question three is that the judge should evaluate the affirmative’s arguments if they were first expressed in the 2AR. In this debate, then, I voted negative because the affirmative did not advance either of the arguments required to defeat the counterplan.
Was I right? Was I wrong? How would you have resolved this debate?